In January, Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg, Felicia Malter and Karen Sher arrived in Israel for a tour sponsored by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis to visit partner agencies that receive support from Federation. The trip was originally scheduled for November 2023 and was delayed after the tragic attacks on October 7. They journaled their exhaustive itinerary via What’s App during the trip to capture thoughts in-the-moment and share the experience with the St. Louis community in real time.

Sher likened the overall experience to being with a family in deep crisis. That family is Israel in the months since October 7 when the Hamas attacks sent the nation reeling with panic and grief, only to be worsened by the torment of antisemitic fervor across the globe.

Familiar experiences and locations play host to the unfamiliar—everything and everyone in Israel is marked by the attacks and the war. Hotels have become temporary homes, schools and clothing distribution centers for thousands of displaced people clinging to a new way of living. Joyful Kabbalat Shabbat services include familiar songs intermingled with family members saying Kaddish in mourning for their loved one murdered at the Nova music festival.

The group visited with several long-standing Federation partners who not only continue to serve their primary missions, but also now provide even more services to Israeli citizens based on urgent needs brought by the attacks and the war to defend Israel. Importantly, each of these partners has been supported long before the attacks and so were exceptionally prepared to respond immediately. Every horrific story they heard throughout the trip was met by an equally compelling force—resilience and unity. “From the protests of 2023 when the country was more divided than ever, to October 7th solidarity. The words B’yachad N’natzeach—‘Together we will win’ are found all over the country,” Sher wrote.

The group visited Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Federation’s partnership regions of Yokneam and Megiddo. At each stop, they met survivors and volunteers—each recounting incredible stories of trauma, fear, and service to each other. “Our partners are doing incredible work and the support provided by the St. Louis community is making a difference,” Sher described. “Our Jewish Federation along with the entire Federation system works in partnership with many organizations in Israel who work on our behalf to fulfill our obligation of Kol Arevim Ze Ba Ze, we are all responsible for one another.”

The group paid a Shivah call for Sergeant First Class Daniel Kasau Zegeye of Yokneam (one of 21 soldiers killed in Gaza in one day) on behalf of our community and brought cakes and a letter for our St. Louis-Atlanta partnership. Daniel was Ethiopian, so a member of the community guided the group through the Shivah, explaining the customs and insisting they eat something so they could say a bracha (blessing). More than a thousand people attended Daniel’s funeral and Shivah offering their condolences.

A visit with the partnership team in Megiddo detailed how volunteers there have been aiding many survivors from Kibbutz Nachal Oz, who began arriving the morning after the massacre, stepping from buses, some still in their pajamas, and many with no life in their eyes. Volunteers helped the victims get situated; receive news of those who were missing or had died; plan funerals; and observe shiva and shloshim. They set up a preschool, kindergarten, and classrooms so that the children could stay with their friends. The St. Louis contingent met with a few of the survivors who shared harrowing accounts of sheltering in their safe room, trying to keep their young children quiet while another mother of three hid for 15 hours with no food, water, or electricity—without understanding what was happening. Through Federation’s support, Mishmar HaEmek, a kibbutz in Megiddo, has provided these individuals with a temporary home, school, and support until they can return home.

Tu B’Shevat is known as the “birthday of the trees,” a holiday marked by tree planting and connection to the land. The group joined the Yokneam ceremony to plant almond trees in memory of several individuals who have died since October 7. “With these trees their ruach (Spirit) and nefesh (soul) are now rooted in the land with these almond saplings and the rain felt like tears from Above, watering these newly planted trees,” Rabbi Rosenberg chronicled.

Perhaps their visit to Jaffa offers a glimpse of a brighter future. Malter recounted meeting with leadership at the Federation-supported Hand in Hand School in Jaffa, a mixed yet segregated community offered rays of light that there is still hope for shared understanding and support. The school brings Israeli Jews and Arabs together from preschool through high school and each class is taught by both Hebrew and Arab speaking instructors.“A school employee told us she used to think change would come from the top down, and now works at the school knowing that true change will come from the youth.”

Rabbi Brigitte: We just visited hostage square. Right now, I have no words, just tears.